Backing Mad Dog over Old Faithful*

I’ve always been interested in chance. Ever since I was first introduced to Yahtzee on the lounge room floor as a ten year old, I’ve been trying to work out whether it is better to take all the risks involved in trying to wrangle the long straight from your three dice rolls, or simply to wait in hope that it rolls out of its own accord. These are the kinds of questions that can keep a nerdy teenager awake at night.

I was good enough at maths and logic to find probability fascinating, but not good enough to be attracted to gambling as a living. I’m thankful for that! Whereas the darkly brilliant David Walsh, owner of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, has built an empire around it. Walsh’s worldview — self-confessed, ‘rabid atheism’ — sees chance as the only dependable dimension of the universe. It all comes down to the odds and the roll of the dice.

But even for God-believers, the universe is full of risks and ‘gambles’. Should I change my career path at the risk of not succeeding? Should I marry that man? Is it reasonable to assume God is still with me through my illness, my child’s death, my family’s breakdown?

Predictable people can be more easily exploited by the unpredictable

Chance is all about predictability. If you know the conditions, you can work out the likelihood of a future event. You can’t predict it with anything like 100 per cent accuracy but you can calculate your ‘reasonable chances’. You can know your odds. But if things aren’t predictable, if you don’t know the conditions, you’ve got Buckley’s. Which makes it strange to discover that being unpredictable gives you more power than being predictable.

According to New Scientist, in its anthology on the concept of chance, being unpredictable helps you to gain power over other people by making them less certain about you. Unpredictable people have the advantage of surprise, nimbleness to change direction, and openness to new circumstances.

And predictable people can be more easily exploited by the unpredictable, because the latter know where the former’s limits are and how unlikely they are to cross them. This power of unpredictability is called ‘Protean behaviour’, a phrase apparently coined by the British biologist Michael Chance (I’m not joking) in 1995 after the Greek mythical God who could change shape.

Is this idea a problem for Christians?

Unpredictable people rise to power faster and more frequently than predictable people. So, in an image the scientists like, Mad Dog will tend to get more of what he wants than Old Faithful. Mad Dog keeps you guessing, and therefore paying attention. Old Faithful let’s you switch off and relax. People will actually listen to Mad Dog, whereas they tune out to Old Faithful. Mad Dog comes up with ways around problems that Old Faithful doesn’t see. It seems very unfair, and perhaps it is. But that’s what happens.

Is this idea a problem for Christians? I don’t think so. We believe in a loving God, who can be relied on, trusted and is described as constant and true. But this doesn’t mean we can relax. Scripture also lets us know that God is himself quite unpredictable, adaptive and elusive. Did anyone expect him to speak through a burning bush, as he did to Moses? Did anyone imagine that death on a Roman cross would be the key to the world’s salvation? The Spirit blows where he wills…

More than that, God’s faithfulness isn’t passive: it is “new every morning”. It isn’t like a mathematical formula, or a machine that never misses a beat. Ironically, God’s faithfulness to us can be very unpredictable—finding comfort in the midst of awful suffering, or meaning in the midst of life’s chaos. His commitment to us is personal and complex, not functional and straightforward. More like a suitor to his lover, a groom towards his bride.

C.S. Lewis got it right in the way he portrayed the lion, Aslan, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. When one of the children nervously asks Mr Beaver whether Aslan is safe, the creature replies: “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’”

It’s a potent description of our Mad Dog God.

Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia.

* I feel I need to note that this column has nothing to do with the US elections. I think.


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